by Karol Nielsen
It was a modestly priced one-bedroom in a charming townhouse near the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I was deeply in love, even though I could see all of its flaws. The baseboards didn’t line up with the floor. The oak parquet had dry rotted and squeaked. The ceiling rippled like the top of a birthday cake. The pink-and-black bathroom was well past its prime. And the mustard laminate kitchen simply had to go. But my instincts raged: This is the one.
It looked so much like my Upper West Side rental that I immediately felt at home. It had everything I was looking for, and more. At $320,000, it was a steal. It had low maintenance and free laundry. It also had plenty of natural light, 11-foot ceilings, long windows, and a lovely view of the manicured townhouses across the street. I could see a Romanesque statue in one of the patios and a cherry tree right below my living room windows. It bloomed pink, like those on Park Avenue, a few weeks after I closed.
Now, every time I leave my Upper East Side apartment in flip flops, I think of that Rufus Wainwright song about wearing flip flops on Fifth Avenue. The first time I’d heard it, I thought, Dude, what are you doing on Fifth Avenue with all those rich, pretentious people? Who cares what you’re wearing? (I had missed the part about him being drunk.) Rufus was opening for Roxy Music at Madison Square Garden and I was already impatient for Brian Ferry to begin. “Flip flops on Fifth?” I said. “You call those lyrics?” My wise and pithy friend, Josh, shot back: “Politics in the personal.”
I used to think of the Upper East Side as the exclusive turf of the old boys’ network and the Junior League, frat boys and sorority girls, old money snobs and new money snobs, Republicans and right-wing conservatives, and a whole lot of white people. It wasn’t for me. I wanted to be around liberal-minded people who didn’t care about money or its trappings, independent thinkers who never had anything to do with a fraternity or sorority, and lots of people who were different from me. I wasn’t far-out enough to live downtown, so naturally, I picked the Upper West Side where I lived happily in rent-stabilized apartments for a decade.
It was the early 90’s and I lived on a street that buzzed all night long—West 83rd between Columbus and Amsterdam. There were 24-hour parking garages up and down the street. There were occasional late-night police visits to my neighbors—sometimes for domestic abuse, and others for possession of crack. My super died of an overdose in the adjoining building and nobody found him for four days. Maybe it should have bothered me, but it didn’t.
I liked the place—the energy, the excitement. I liked the Cuban diner across the street where I could buy scrambled eggs and home fries for $2.50, a meal that was often my dinner. I liked the fact that the Palestinian guys at the deli knew my name and treated me like one of their daughters. I liked the way Puerto Rican boys sat on my stoop and played their boom box until the wee hours of the night. It was cool. It was alive. It was the Upper West Side. The old Upper West Side.
Then sometime during the mid-90’s, when the Internet economy was booming and everyone seemed to have a good job, everything changed. Lincoln Center became a hub of superstores—Tower Records, Barnes and Noble, Victoria’s Secret, Gracious Home, and the multiplex Lowe’s. Apartments began to rent for double and triple what they had a few years earlier. People dressed better, even on the weekends. And nail salons began popping up all over the place.
Somehow, I found the nail salons the most disturbing. “I’ve got to do a story about all these nail salons,” I said to Ron, a former classmate from Columbia School of Journalism. He’s always been a good sounding board. Ron smirked, like a tough editor, treating all story ideas as guilty until proven innocent. “Nail salons? So, what’s your angle?” “I don’t know, there are just so many of them.”
I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it meant at the time. But it soon became clear. The salons were only a starting point. It meant that the once artsy Upper Westside was being overtaken by yuppies with buffed nails, spiffy suits, and briefcases—corporate-looking types coming and going from apartment buildings like mine. These were people I associated with Wall Street or the Upper East Side. What were they doing in my neighborhood?
But I had to admit that I, too, had changed. I’d gotten a better job, moved into a better apartment, and had to dress up for work. At first, this was excruciating. I was used to wearing black turtlenecks, faded Levi’s, and combat boots for street-reporting jobs and came to feel constricted in blouses, skirts, and slacks for my magazine desk-job. Whenever I tried to sneak in a bit of soul and comfort from time to time, it never went over well.
Like the time I was reprimanded by the publisher, via email, for wearing flip flops to work. “You’re the editor and you don’t want to set a bad example,” the publisher wrote. But these were expensive mules, not flip flops. I wanted to defend them like the champion lacrosse players who had recently worn “nice” flip flops to the White House. Still, the point wasn’t lost on me. I needed to clean up my act or get better at pitching freelance work, which seemed like a long shot considering I couldn’t even convince my friends that I had good ideas. So I wore heels to work, like everyone else.
I wasn’t looking to buy, at first. Initially, I was drawn to the Upper East Side because of my sister’s cheap apartment. Both of us had rent-stabilized apartments that went for about the same amount, but hers was a two-bedroom railroad with a big, new kitchen in the East 90s and mine was a slightly, run-down one-bedroom in the West 70s. She offered to turn the lease over to me after she and her husband bought a Tribeca-like loft in Vinegar Hill—a fast-developing Brooklyn neighborhood that’s become popular among hipsters. (They have since sold that place and bought a townhouse in Crown Heights, like a handful of other pioneering hipsters.)
I didn’t take my sister’s apartment, but I did take a new look at the neighborhood I had trashed for so long. I went to Bloomingdale’s and discovered that it was almost like shopping in SoHo, only I didn’t get wet when it rained. I worked out at the Equinox in the East 60s and liked its low-key, spa vibe. And I was caught off guard by the timeless elegance of the townhouses between Fifth and Third, as I took the bus across town to teach writing workshops. The neighborhood seemed so clean and orderly and safe and, for the first time, that appealed to me. I had always thrived on chaos and dirt and danger, but that was before September 11, 2001. So when my mother called to say that she and my father were selling their investment condo in Connecticut, and that they could help me buy a place in the city, I knew exactly where I wanted to be. The Upper East Side. It’s grown on me so much that I’ve now come to consider my new turf the best part of town.
True, the Republican Club is a few blocks away, and the Junior League is down the street, and I still see archetypical Upper East Siders—frat boys, sorority girls, ladies in pearls. But I’ve come to deeply appreciate the Upper East Side because it is chock full of attractive, all-American men who are not shy about staring at pretty women. The frat-boy ogle used to perturb me when I was in my bohemian twenties, but now I find it reassuring.
We have loads of other types, too. Tourists from all over the world doing the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the Met. Diplomats coming and going from consulates and missions to the U.N. Elegant men and women speaking languages I can pinpoint—like French, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew—and a string of others that I can’t. Spiffy art dealers and designer salespeople. I am inspired by these people, even though I am so different.
Of course, there are also hipsters everywhere, like the rock stars down the street. Okay, I don’t have proof they’re rock stars, but they gather outside the townhouse to be seen with guitar cases, Bob Dylan haircuts, hipster t-shirts, hip-hugging jeans, and purposeful bad posture. They ooze cool all the way down the street. And then there’s my neighbor, who lives in the townhouse next to mine. She’s got a big copper bay window that spans the width of the middle floors. People stop to stare and sometimes take photos. You might expect an Upper East Side matron in a navy blue suit to step out and hail her personal driver, but instead it’s a young mother in a miniskirt and vintage floral t-shirt.
The Upper East Side is by no means SoHo, Tribeca, or Williamsburg, but it’s got its own type of soul. It’s overflowing with museums like the Guggenheim, Whitney, and Met. It’s teeming with upscale restaurants and old school bars. It’s even got literary flair. While my apartment underwent renovations, I worked out of the New York Society Library, which attracts a literary crowd (although I was told, more than once, that I type too loudly). I also discovered the independent bookstore on Madison. One morning, on my way to the coffee shop, I noticed a book of poems in the window by an author I’d never heard of before. I was drawn to the photo on the jacket of windswept salt marshes. A few days later, when I passed by, I noticed that the poetry collection wasn’t in the window anymore, so I walked inside. “I’m looking for a poetry collection,” I said. “In The Salt Marsh.”
The clerk quietly led me to the poetry section and picked it up. “I don’t know the author,” he said, “but I liked the cover.” I smiled in agreement. I read the inside cover, a book about nature and empty spaces. t captured the exact feeling I’d had from the cover. And the author, Nancy Willard, is an award-winning poet who teaches at Vassar. Groovy. I told the clerk that it seemed to be a good one. He smiled big, just like the doormen who nod and greet me without intruding on my privacy. I strolled up and down Madison to window shop and people watch. Sometimes I walked into the stores, though it took some getting used to. At first, I was only comfortable venturing into stores that were familiar to me from the Upper West Side. I used to spend writing breaks roaming up and down Columbus Avenue in much the same way that Madison has become home to me now. The best designers line the avenue. Valentino, Dolce and Gabbana, Carolina Herrera, Missoni. I was intimidated. Big time.
I was sure that people would spot me as a fraud. No trust fund. No designer wardrobe. No blue blood. I thought everyone could read it in my eyes—by the scared look I wore when I’d venture along the street in t-shirts, jeans, and flip flops. One day, I called home and bawled. “Madison Avenue is awful,” I told my mother. “Sweetie,” she said, “that’s a tough street, as tough as Rodeo Drive.” My mother was concerned I might turn into a Junior League wannabe after I’d moved to the Upper East Side. She was startled to see young women strolling down Park Avenue in St. John knits. “They look like old ladies,” she said. “Don’t ever get that way.”
I know that the Upper East Side still isn’t for everyone. My graphic artist friend says it’s “so suburban,” and my documentary filmmaker friend says it has “no character.” My gay student has even said it’s “like crossing the Mason Dixon line.” I know where they’re coming from, I suppose, but I’ve grown tired of things that divide us. I want to live in a world where anyone can live anywhere they like, and I’m claiming that, with my own little slice of it. So now, I stroll regularly up and down Madison in my flip flops, embracing the good without letting the other stuff get me down.
Karol Nielsen is the author of the memoirs Black Elephants (Bison Books, 2011) and Walking A&P (Mascot Books, 2018) and the chapbooks This Woman I Thought I’d Be (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and Vietnam Made Me Who I Am (Finishing Line Press, 2020). Her first memoir was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in nonfiction in 2012. Excerpts were honored as notable essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005. Her full poetry collection was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Guernica, Lumina, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, RiverSedge, and elsewhere. She has taught writing at New York University and New York Writers Workshop.